The Arab Spring has become an Islamist Winter.
Tunisia’s weekend vote, the brutal killing of a brutal dictator in Libya, Egypt’s upcoming legislative elections, and Barack Obama’s announcement of a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq are among the current events sparking observers to rethink future events. Might the oppressors we knew prove preferable in some cases to the oppressors we don’t quite know yet?
Tunisia held the first free elections in its history this weekend. The victors appear to be the Ennahda, or Renaissance, party, an Islamist movement which had opposed, sometimes violently, the fallen regime. “Allahu Akbar!” chanted hundreds of supporters gathered outside the headquarters of Ennahda, which some Tunisians regard as “God’s party.” But the party leader (in the temporal world, at least) Rachid Ghannouchi insists that there is no conflict between representative government and a party that represents Allah. “We have declared that we accept democracy without any restrictions and we accept the decision of the people whether they come with us or against us,” he explained in the wake of his political victory. “We accept the notion of citizenship as the basis of rights, so all citizens are equal whether they are Islamist or not Islamist.”
Next door in Libya, the Qaddafi-like torture, summary execution, and corpse humiliation of Muammar Qaddafi suggest that Libya’s “liberators” may have been more interested in replacing their oppressor than deposing him. “Islam is the Religion of the State and the principal source of legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence (Sharia),” the proposed new constitution decrees. Conversely, it also asserts, “The State shall guarantee for non-Moslems the freedom of practicing religious rights and shall guarantee respect for their systems of personal status.” As with Tunisia, Libya’s new rulers offer rhetorical ambiguity. But Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the chairman of Libya’s National Transitional Council, has already lifted the old ban on polygamy and intends to impose a new ban on loan interest. Abdul-Jalil reasons, “Interest creates disease and hatred among people.”
To the east in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party campaigns for the 27 November parliamentary elections under the slogan: “Islam Is the Solution.” They’re not saying what the problem is. Judging by the exodus of 100,000 Coptic Christians in the last six months, and September’s invasion of Israel’s embassy in Cairo by an Islamic mob, the presence of anyone who isn’t a fundamentalist Muslim may be the unnamed problem they seek to solve.
Though Iraq’s liberation from a tyrant came eight springs before the Arab Spring, uncertainty abounds there as well. The announced December pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq will unleash unexpected consequences. Iraq, which some Westerners saw as the model for Middle Eastern democracy, may be so in ways unimagined. Already, the persecution of Christians, continuous terrorist attacks, state support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, and strengthening ties with Iran show a nation at odds with the one envisioned prior to the U.S. invasion. That surprises will follow the withdrawal should not be much of a surprise.
Older observers with long memories will recall that Westerners giddy over Arab Spring revolutions also expressed naive hope when today’s overthrown were yesterday’s overthrowers. When Muammar Qaddafi first seized power, for instance, The Nation magazine greeted him as a liberator. Is the possibility of worse replacing bad that difficult to grasp? In France in 1789, in Russia in 1917, and in Iran in 1979, oppressive regimes fell to forces that ultimately proved more oppressive. The history of 2011 won’t be written in 2011, so “Whither the Arab Spring?” is still an open question—just not one as open in the fall as it was in the spring.
The reality of Middle Eastern democracy doesn’t resemble the dreams of its Western cheerleaders. This is as much a reflection of our hubris as it is of their backwardness. Uprooting centuries of Islamic Civilization would be as difficult as instilling centuries of Western Civilization. Change is often glacial; rarely seismic. And the change we want for them isn’t necessarily the change they desire for themselves.
Multicultural delusions, which often turn out to be parochial imaginings of the universality of Western institutions, set up the shock over the Islamist direction of the Arab Spring. So, too, did democratic delusions. Democracy can look like a quaint town meeting in Vermont. It can look like the bloodthirsty mob in Sirte. Westerners wrapped up in the word’s connotations lose track of its meaning. The political freedom of the ballot can be used to vote away religious, economic, and social freedoms. This is what democracy looks like—at least in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt.
Democracy can give power to the people. It is more important to establish what the people can’t take away from the person. These restraints seem utterly lacking in the emerging regimes. More so than political freedom, the Middle East requires political limits.
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